The word ‘fundamentalism’ is often associated with toxic religions and even religious terrorism. As a result, most of us would feel that fundamentalists have little or nothing to teach us about God. We may even be tempted to quote John Wesley’s famous words to George Whitefield: “Your God is my devil!”
But perhaps there are some important things to learn from these ‘true believers.’ Perhaps their view of God as sovereign and in control has something to teach us, even if we see God very differently.
In this episode of the EvoFaith Podcast, I’m going to invite you to explore some of what makes fundamentalism so appealing and what we can learn about God from the passion of ‘true believers.’
Did you notice that when the pandemic hit, it didn’t take long for certain religious leaders to blame the whole thing on gay people? An article on the Reuters website posted in March of 2020 reported as follows:
Hurricane Katrina. The New Zealand earthquake. Even the Spanish economy.
Over the years, LGBT+ people have been blamed for disasters both natural and man-made, and now they stand accused of being responsible for the coronavirus epidemic.
Several U.S. religious figures and an influential Israeli rabbi have suggested the emergence of the virus is divine retribution for same-sex activity, which they see as sinful.
If it wasn’t so harmful, it would be boring how predictable it is that anything that goes wrong with the world gets labelled as God’s punishment on LGBTQIA+ people, on feminists, and/or on atheists. Of course, the religious leaders who make these claims are always those who fall into the fundamentalist camp in their respective religion. And if you should challenge them, asking how a God of love could possibly bring such pain and suffering on human beings the answer is usually something like, “God’s ways are not our ways. God’s ways are far above ours. God’s thoughts are much higher than your thoughts.” The implication is that God is Sovereign, God rules over all, and is God—which means God can do whatever the hell God wants. And we shouldn’t ever question God.
This answer that they give tends to use this quote from Isaiah 55:8-11, but stripped of its context. Isaiah was speaking to the Israelites who were living in exile in Babylon. He sought to offer them hope and comfort by inviting them to receive God’s goodness and grace, and to trust that God would free them and bring them home. He calls on them to seek God, to commit to following God’s ways again. And then he tells them that God’s ways are higher than theirs. Meaning that even though it seems that there is no hope for them, God is able to restore their freedom and joy. It is not a message of judgment but of hope and liberation. And it is rooted in a very positive idea of God’s sovereignty.
Fundamentalist Christians often resort to quoting this passage any time they are faced with a contradiction in their view of God. It’s a catch-all answer that frees them from the need to question their thinking and explore alternative ideas about God. I must confess to finding this quite frustrating.
But I have also discovered that when it comes to ‘true believers’, the idea of God’s Sovereignty is one of the highest truths that cannot be questioned or changed. To deny God’s Sovereignty is to deny God—to say God isn’t God. To affirm God’s Sovereignty is to say that God doesn’t change, God is over all, and God has always said and done the same things in every place and with every group of people.
Of course, what is often left out in this thinking is that we change. Our understanding of God—and our capacity to understand God—has changed so much through the millennia of our human existence. So perhaps God doesn’t change—we can’t really know that one way or the other (although I have some theories)—but we change, and so God definitely does change for us.
But what if there is some value to this idea of Sovereignty. What if there is something in the fundamentalist approach to faith that can help us all to connect with God (or whatever we understand as the ‘More’ in our universe) more deeply? What if the idea of the Sovereignty of God isn’t as absurd as we may think at first glance? Well, that’s what I want to explore as we discuss what we can learn from fundamentalists.
Few believers are as passionate as fundamentalists are. They are the true believers who build their entire lives around their God. Their obedience is meant to be absolute (although even they don’t always reach this high standard). And their devotion to God is all-consuming. They accept without question that God can do no wrong. That God is above all, over all, in control of all, and that nothing happens outside of God’s power and plan. Flowing from this they are convinced that whatever happens, even when it seems evil to us, has some good purpose behind it. God is “working all things together for good to those who love God” to quote Romans 8:28 (out of context again, of course). And so our job is to accept and believe—and perhaps, but not necessarily, seek wisdom to understand what God’s reasoning is.
I can’t do faith in this way. I can’t work with this version of God’s Sovereignty. But I can respect the devotion and passion with which these believers hold to it. And I have found that there is value—and for me, truth—in this idea that God is Sovereign.
Essentially what speaks to me is this: Any God—any ‘More’—that is within my ability to control, understand, and manipulate, is not worthy of the name. By definition, God must be beyond us, greater than us, more than anything we could ever be. As Rob Bell says, “The moment God is figured out with nice neat lines and definitions, we are no longer dealing with God.”
I need to remember this. As a rationalist, a head-type—a 5 on the Enneagram—I rely on my ability to work things out, to gather information, and to understand things. And I can fall into the trap of thinking that I can know and understand everything about the world and the universe. I have had to work on staying connected with mystery. I have had to learn to become comfortable—and even to enjoy—unanswerable questions, unresolvable contradictions, mind-blowing paradoxes, and the deep, awe-inspiring mysteries of our universe. I have had to dive deep into my insignificance, my smallness, and the very limited capacity of my brain to grasp the vastness of the Cosmos—let alone the whole idea of the multiverse! And this has brought such joy, vibrancy, excitement, pleasure and depth into my life.
One of the things that I have had to learn to embrace and celebrate in this vast mysterious, greater-than-me universe, is that I am not in control. Of anything, really. There is Sovereignty to the ‘More’, to the Divine Spirit or Consciousness that is way beyond my ability to understand or manipulate.
Now, to be clear, the way I think of God does not mean that I justify away the evil in the world or the tragedies of great disasters or even small cases of human suffering. I don’t see God as this Super Being beyond all creation pulling the strings and making things happen for some higher purpose. I see God as immersed in it all. I see God as Being, as Life itself—not A being. And I see God flowing through all things and empowering us to oppose evil and to seek to alleviate suffering at every opportunity. Honestly, I wouldn’t even be comfortable to speak of God, or the ‘More’ as being in control in the way the fundamentalists would.
But there is a wild, untameable force of Life that is at work among us—and as we discussed last week—within us. It is bigger than we are. More powerful. It fills the universe and every corner of it. And I need to be reminded of this. I may have divinity in my core. I may be an incarnation of God. But I am not the full manifestation of God. I am a part, not the whole. I am one reflection, one manifestation, of a far bigger Reality. And so are you.
And it is good for our souls, and for our world, when we recognise that we are not in control. We need to participate in something greater than us, and we need to collaborate with one another, if we are to make any kind of positive difference in our world. And we need the vision of awe, the speechlessness of being confronted with the Vast, Eternal Mystery, to remind us that the universe does not revolve around us. Because only then can we dive deep into life’s wonders and complexities. And only then can we find what fullness of life is, and share it with our corner of the world.
Next time we’re going to talk about what we can learn about God—and how to connect with and love God more intentionally—from atheists. I’m also going to suggest that we all need a little atheism in our spirituality. It’s going to be fun and exciting and I can’t wait to share this next part of our conversation!
Thank you for your time and attention. Stay connected to the sacred. And I’ll catch you next time.
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